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A Reflection on the Purpose of Higher Education

By: Dr. John Smetanka
Posted Thu., April 5, 2012

This is an excerpt from the keynote address given at the Induction Ceremony and Senior Recognition for the First Year Honors Society, Alpha Lambda Delta, at Saint Vincent College on Saturday, March 31.  

At one time earning a College degree would consist solely of a rigorous and general education. Over the past century there has been a trend in higher education to reduce the breadth of knowledge, the core curriculum or general education requirement, so that more credits can be devoted to specialization or professional preparation. “What is your major?” has become one of the most common ice-breaker questions during orientation and beyond.

Now there is a growing popular opinion that the singular purpose of higher education is professional preparation - to train the next generation of doctors, lawyers, scientists, business managers, financers, accountants, psychologists, engineers, mathematicians, and teachers. Certainly that is a role that Colleges must play. However, this is not the sole purpose and I would argue not even the primary purpose of a College education.

In 1852 John Cardinal Henry Newman wrote in his classic text, The Idea of a University the following which I will paraphrase slightly:

If one must assign a practical end to a College education, I say it is to train good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world. It neither confines its views to particular professions on the one hand, nor creates heroes or inspires genius on the other. Works indeed of genius fall under no art; heroic minds come under no rule; a College is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons, of Napoleons or Washingtons, of Raphaels or Shakespeares, though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts. Nor is it content on the other hand with forming the critic or the scientist, the economist or the engineer, though such too it includes within its scope. But a College training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man or woman a clear conscious view of his or her own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. 

According to Newman, the purpose of a College education is to impart the tools to live a principled, significant and meaningful life and thereby to ultimately and collectively improve our society. Certainly within the scope of a College’s mission is the practical training of artists, authors, communicators, educators, technologist, and health care professionals. These are important, and a career, I would argue, is essential to a significant and meaningful life for most of us. However, blended with professional preparation must be a broad general education that cultivates respect for the diversity of different disciplinary approaches to the same questions.

Specialized training alone tempts one to answer all questions using the tools and methods of that particular discipline. The analogy that comes to mind is the saying, “if you only have a hammer in your toolbox, everything looks like a nail.” The problems facing our nation and our world today ― climate change, energy, health care, and the economy, to name just a few ― require solutions that use all the tools at humanity’s disposal.

I will give you one example to illustrate the dangers of too much specialization from my own field of cosmology. Dr. Lawrence Krauss, Professor of Physics and Director of the Origins program at Arizona State University, in his most recent book A Universe from Nothing proposes that quantum physics answers the most fundamental question of why there is something instead of nothing. A question that he claims was solely in the realm of theology is now answered definitively by physics. The answer, by the way, is that the mathematics of relativistic quantum physics shows that empty space (or vacuum) is inherently unstable and that matter will be spontaneously created from the energy fields that permeate empty space. This is indeed a triumph of relativistic quantum mechanics and offers insight into the physical structure of space and time that make up the universe, but in the after words Dr. Richard Dawkins claims that this explanation is devastating to theologians who Dawkins says relied on “the something rather than nothing” question to introduce supernatural or transcendent explanations which are now superfluous. Since quantum mechanics shows that something is preferred to nothing, the question in Dawkins’ and Krauss’ minds is answered sufficiently, Theology is crushed, and there is no more reason to appeal to the transcendent power of a Creator. Happy Easter!

Well I hope that the flaw in this argument is apparent to those of you with even just a couple of Theology or Philosophy courses on your transcript. The fact that quantum mechanics can show that something is preferred to nothing does not begin to answer the deeper questions of where did the laws of quantum mechanics or the energy fields they describe come from in the first place? Or, why these particular laws of quantum mechanics and not another possible set of laws in which nothing is preferred to something? Perhaps these questions too will be answered by science someday – but rest assured, deeper more fundamental questions will remain.

The god Dawkins and Krauss disproves is a god that fills the gaps of our scientific knowledge, who caused the sun to rise and set before the rotation of the earth was understood by our ancestors, who kept the planets in orbit before Newton explained this with gravity, and who struck the match to light the fuse to set off the Big Bang before Krauss showed us that all that needed to be done was to set up the appropriate energy fields and the laws of quantum mechanics to govern them. The God of most of the world’s major theologies does not work in the gaps of our scientific knowledge but instead transcends them. What causes this mistake is not just an ignorance of Theology, Philosophy, or History but a belief that ALL the questions possible must be answerable by science to be legitimate, in fact that all disciplines can be reduced or subsumed by one discipline – in this case science. This is a belief is called scientism.

While this problem is especially prevalent today in science falling into scientism, most notably in the militant atheist movement characterized by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, we see other specialists in other disciplines falling into similar behavior. The extrapolation that one discipline or one perspective is sufficient not just to answer a particular question but to answer all possible questions is not unique to science. Under close examination we see similarities between scientism and fundamentalist – those who see their theology as providing the only correct answers to all possible questions. This is a dangerous trap set by over-specialization. This type of educational philosophy acts like blinders preventing the depth perception that a second perspective from another discipline brings. Without a breath of knowledge and a respect for the methods of other disciplines, a Physicist can believe that Physics solves everything, a Politician strives for Politics to be able to find all answers, an Economist may believe that the market will make everything right, and a Neuroscientist can hold the opinion that if she learns enough about the brain, the entirety of the human experience can be explained.

Our society relies on people of good character and virtue combined with professional knowledge and skill to function effectively. Individuals who question what are the right things to do and what is the right way to accomplish these right things. Without these types of individuals, society cannot advance. The most important purpose of a College is to produce graduates who have studied deeply AND broadly so that they may contribute to the advancement of society that Newman so eloquently spoke. The multiple perspectives gained from the study of science, literature, the arts, other languages and culture, mathematics, philosophy, and theology work to train the mind to know the right path to take to get to the right place. This is what Aristotle called practical wisdom, which he said was the highest virtue. This should be the goal of higher education – to impart character, virtue, and wisdom in addition to the knowledge and skills of professional preparation. I am happy to say that this is the educational philosophy of Saint Vincent College and that our students consistently demonstrate these values while in College and after graduation.


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Dr. John Smetanka,
Academic Affairs

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.